The Best Rappers From 25 Major US Cities
May 21st is the birthday of one Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. Two decades after his brief career was cut short, the Brooklyn native is still widely considered the illest hip-hop artist of all time. While we don't disagree with the assertion, we also think that Biggie -- who, in a time of great interregional tensions, reached across the map to work with Cleveland's Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, Miami's Uncle Luke, and Oakland's Too Short -- might appreciate a more geographically nuanced look at rap.
Long gone are the "East Coast vs. West Coast" days when NYC and LA ruled, and everyone else might as well have been in outer space. The internet largely leveled hip-hop's playing field, breaking down the regional barriers that existed in Biggie and 2Pac's day. So we've scanned the playlists from 25 of the USA's biggest cities and metro areas in search of the best rapper ever from each -- a hip-hop Knights of the Round Table to Biggie's King Arthur, if you will.
Determining factors in our selections included, but were not limited to: the strength and consistency of their lyrical content; their local and nationwide impact; and their continued influence on other artists. In the case of rappers who've moved around, we've assigned them a single hometown based on where they got their start, as opposed to where they might have landed after they got famous. As Biggie and Bone Thugs once said, "Let's ride…"
Atlanta: André 3000
Most "Atlanta" track: "Elevators (Me & You)"
Atlanta wasn't a factor in any conversation about rap until Outkast's Andre Benjamin (then known simply as "André") and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton kicked open the door for the Dungeon Family and the "Dirty South" with their debut single "Player's Ball" in 1993. Outkast was probably one of the most evenly matched rap duos around, talent-wise, but it’s Benjamin -- who would officially rebrand himself André 3000 in 2000 -- who listeners gravitated to the most. Over 10 years and five albums, he distinguished himself as the South's most inventive rapper, a lyrical and sartorial innovator whose rejection of rap's rigid masculinity norms was way ahead of the curve. Today, the ATL is home to more marquee rappers than any other city but, from Killer Mike to Future, the best of these can trace a line right back to André and Outkast.
Most "Baltimore" track: "Dear Mama"
Twenty years after their rivalry reached an unfortunate end, Tupac Shakur remains right next to Biggie on rap’s Mount Rushmore. But assigning him a hometown is as tricky as choosing the best track from his schizophrenic catalog. The son of Black Panther Afeni Shakur spent his earliest years in New York City. He gained his first exposure with Digital Underground in Oakland. And he lived his final, most productive days in LA. Though he never recorded there, the embodiment of West Coast rap first rapped during his high school days in Baltimore. Better known for Baltimore club, a hybrid of hip-hop breaks and house music emphasizing party chants over lyrics, the Charm City has never had a national rap star, a good enough reason to grant it custody of hip-hop's greatest nomad.
Most "Boston" track: "Take It Personal"
As the voice of iconic duo Gang Starr (with Houston-born DJ Premier) and the creator of Jazzmatazz, an experimental vanity project that fused hip-hop with live jazz, the late Keith "Guru" Elam is rightly associated with Brooklyn, the New York borough where he did much of his classic work. But the rapper, known for his gravelly voice and conversational delivery, spent his formative years in Roxbury, Massachusetts, founding an earlier incarnation of Gang Starr with other local rappers before relocating to NYC. Boston has produced a handful of great MCs who kept things local -- most notably, fellow Roxbury product EDO.G -- but none can match up to Guru in terms of influence and seminal output.
Runner-up: EDO. G
Chicago: Kanye West
Most "Chicago" song: "Homecoming"
Chicago had star rappers before Kanye. But as the uniquely immodest musical auteur would probably tell you himself if he hasn't already, he did for rap in Chicago what Jordan did for basketball. With each of his six albums, Kanye's positioned himself, and by extension his city, at the center of the conversation -- rap-wise and for music in general. And, as much as he's ventured further outward musically with each project, he's consistently acknowledged his hometown through lyrics (perhaps most notably on Graduation's "Homecoming," which reprises the metaphor from one of the city’s most iconic, pre-Kanye rap tracks, Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R") as well as his patronage of local artists, past (i.e., featuring '90s Chi icon Twista on early College Dropout single "Slow Jamz") and present (Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, the brightest lights of the city’s next rap generation, both feature on The Life of Pablo). While it's true he's more highly regarded as a producer and often misfires lyrically, his highs as a rapper have been consistently memorable.
Cleveland: Bizzy Bone
Most "Cleveland" song: "Thuggish Ruggish Bone"
Midwest rap was lacking a recognizable identity until Bone Thugs-N-Harmony came on the scene in the early '90s with their "chopper-style" double-time flows, thugged-out presentation, and trademark group harmonies. Although the group's greatest strength was its collective cohesion, Bizzy Bone (Bryon Anthony McCane) immediately distinguished himself as its most distinctive presence, with an impassioned, high-pitched delivery. For a bit of Bizzy at his best, cue up "Notorious Thugs" from Biggie's 1996 album Life After Death. It's one of the few times the greatest rapper of all time was outshone on one of his own tracks.
Runner-up: The rest of Bone Thugs
Dallas: The D.O.C.
Most "Dallas" song: "Ain’t It Funky"
Like many landlocked rappers of his day, Tracy Lynn Curry, The D.O.C., had to head for the coast to find success. After appearing on N.W.A.'s 1987 debut, N.W.A. and the Posse, with his Dallas group, the Fila Fresh Crew, he remained in LA, ghostwriting for some of the city's most seminal gangster rap albums, including Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic Doggystyle. However, his own solo career was curtailed as quickly as it started in 1989, when a car accident left his vocal chords badly damaged just months after the release of his classic debut, No One Can Do It Better. These days, Curry -- who has recently regained some of his vocal power and begun performing again -- is back in Dallas, working on a new album and reportedly filming an upcoming documentary for Netflix.
Most "Detroit" song: "Lose Yourself"
Do we really need to explain this one? To suggest anyone other than Eminem as the pinnacle of Detroit rap would be like calling a label other than Motown the city's most important record company. You don't have to be a fan, you just have to admit that, when it comes to hip-hop in the Motor City, Slim Shady will always be the man.
Runner-up:Royce da 5'9"
Most "Houston" song: "On My Block"
There's no question here either. For longevity and consistency, few rappers anywhere can touch Brad Jordan. Along with fellow Geto Boys Willie D and Bushwick Bill, 'Face created a gritty, noir lane for Houston rap, beginning with '89's Grip It! On That Other Level. Today, the author of possibly the most vivid song ever about going insane is as revered for his catalog of 12 solo LPs as he is for those early Geto Boys releases; traces of his influence can be felt in the music of Drake, a vocal acolyte of classic Houston rap, and pretty much any MC who invokes mental instability for lyrical gravitas. And 25 years after the release of his solo debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back, he still generates interest in his current work, a respect afforded to few of his '90s-era peers.
Kansas City: Tech N9ne
Most "Kansas" City song: "Am I A Psycho"
Tech N9ne has quietly built up Kansas City rap's profile since the late '90s with his lucrative label Strange Music and solo releases, which regularly top Billboard's indie charts. Well, "quietly" if you're outside the Midwest. On his home turf, he sells out venues in the tens of thousands. (Recent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne and the single "Hood Go Crazy" featuring B.O.B. and 2 Chainz, as well as appearances on Forbes’ "Cash Kings" list, however, have begun to bring him some mainstream exposure.) The rapper's aggro-rhyme style and Juggalo-friendly presentation aren't for all tastes, but you can't deny that he’s had an outsized impact on his city and region.
Los Angeles: Ice Cube
Most "LA" song: "Straight Outta Compton"
With the very first line ("Straight outta Compton, a crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from the gang called Niggaz with Attitude") of the first verse of the first song of the first album by N.W.A. (we don't count 1987’s compilation "mixtape" N.W.A. and the Posse), Ice Cube defined the gangster rap ethos: profane, visceral, threatening. Cube, who left N.W.A in 1989, released four mostly classic albums on his own before turning primarily to acting, the influence of which should not be overlooked: "It Was a Good Day" a lighthearted, clean inversion of gangsta tropes from '92’s The Predator, is a clear antecedent to the storytelling on Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Soon, we'll be calling Kendrick Lamar LA's greatest rapper (let's give the kid one more album to firm that up). Until then, if we're talking about a local who imbued LA with a long-lasting lyrical legacy, it's Ice Cube, all day.
Miami: Trick Daddy
Most "Miami" song: "I’m a Thug"
As already-famous/wealthy rappers attracted by South Beach's jiggy party scene flocked to Miami in the late '90s, Trick Daddy showcased a grittier, more authentic slice of local life on singles like "You Don’t Know Nann" and "Shut Up." Before Trick, Miami rap was notably thin on lyrical content -- window dressing, essentially, for the booming 808s and call-and-response chants of the city’s homegrown Bass sound. Trick helped change that with his scene-stealing appearance on "Scarred," the 1996 Uncle Luke single which instantly thrust him into the city’s spotlight; he soon became the flagship act for Slip-N-Slide, the definitive Miami label of the late '90s and early aughts. He hasn't been very prolific lately, but even Rick Ross would probably have to admit that no rapper better embodies the 305 area code.
Memphis: Juicy J
Most "Memphis" song: "Tear Da Club Up"
Juicy J, the former Three 6 Mafia member known for his punchy delivery and "trippy" (his word) drug-inspired rhymes, continues to ride rap's most unlikely third act. Having enjoyed fleeting success in two different eras with Three 6 -- first in the '90s, as the unruly ambassadors of Memphis' aggressive buck music style, and then with a more streamlined, Oscar-winning version of the group in the mid-aughts -- he’s now known to a fresh generation of rap fans thanks to stripper anthems like "Bandz A Make Her Dance," and his work with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. That the 41-year-old is enjoying such a resurgence, while former Three 6 compadres like Koopsta Knicca have returned to obscurity, is a testament to persistence, timing, and the fortunate advantage of having a great voice that sounds cool over practically anything.
Runner-up:Eightball and/or MJG
Minneapolis: Brother Ali
Most "Minneapolis" song: "Us"
In contrast to Prince's flashy, sexy funk, rap in Minnesota's Twin Cities area is a blue-collar affair. The area's national presence is largely the work of one label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, founded by members and associates of the group Atmosphere. Of the company’s local signings, probably the most remarkable is Brother Ali, a legally blind, Muslim, albino rapper known for socially conscious fare like "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and "Us," featuring local R&B great Stokley Williams of Mint Condition.
Runner-up: Slug (of Atmosphere)
Milwaukee: Coo Coo Cal
Most "Milwaukee" song: "My Projects"
That the most significant rap song to ever come from Milwaukee was made by a guy called Coo Coo Cal should tell you about all you need to know about Milwaukee rap.
Runner-up: Anybody's guess
New Orleans: Lil Wayne
Most "New Orleans" song: "Go DJ"
Believe it or not, New Orleans isn't among the 50 most populous US cities. But when it comes to producing great rap music, this famously musical town belongs in the top five. A partial list of unique Crescent City voices includes Mystikal, Juvenile, Jay Electronica, Curren$y, and Big Freedia. However, no one's brought NOLA rap to greater heights than one Weezy F. Baby. During his mixtape-enhanced peak from the mid- to late aughts (a period culminating with 2009’s Tha Carter III) Lil Wayne was peerless in terms of productivity, and off-the-wall lyrical inventiveness. He's since burned out, allowing his star to be surpassed by YMCMB cohorts Drake and Nicki Minaj, but his occasional flashes of brilliance (not to mention early hits with the Hot Boys) are enough to secure his place at the pinnacle of New Orleans' rap food chain.
New York: The Notorious B.I.G.
Most "New York" song: "Unbelievable"
NYC, the birthplace of hip-hop, has spawned so many great and influential rappers that to choose just one should be a daunting task. But it's not. It's Biggie. He took the best aspects of the best talents that came before him (Big Daddy Kane’s luxurious swagger, Scarface's weighty gravitas, the visual depth of Rakim), added his own innovations (changing styles and "character" within the same verse, for one), and changed the tone and pace of New York rap overnight, directly inspiring the next wave of MCs (here's what Jay Z sounded like, pre-Biggie) to change their whole approach.
Runners-up:Nas, Jay Z, Big Daddy Kane
Oakland: Too Short
Most "Oakland" song: "Cuss Words"
Oakland is one of the great rap cities, and while E-40 (who actually hails from nearby Vallejo) and Mac Dre could each easily be anointed with top-dog status for their contributions to Bay Area slang alone, it all starts with Too Short. For over 30 years, "Short Dog from the Dangerous Crew" has been dropping explicit story raps and "freaky tales," never deviating from the formula that made him an Oaktown legend. The first of Too Short’s approximately 20 studio albums was called Don't Stop Rappin' and, with the exception of a publicity stunt "retirement" in the '90s, he never really has.
Runners-up: Mac Dre, E-40
Philadelphia: Black Thought
Most "Philly" song: "The Next Movement"
Though overshadowed in the publicity department by drummer and bandleader Questlove, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter has been the Roots' soulful voice of reason for more than two decades. Philly’s had more influential rappers (Schoolly D, whose 1986 single, "P.S.K., What Does It Mean" laid the earliest seeds of gangster rap), more emotionally resonant ones (Beanie Sigel, whose grapples with street life made for some of the most poignant music of the Roc-A-Fella era), and flashier ones with panache (Cool C, Meek Mill). But none can claim to be as consistently sharp or more admired by his peers.
Runners-up:Beanie Sigel, Schoolly D
Phoenix: Marcus "MC Magic" Cardenas
Most "Phoenix" song: "Down For Yours"
Phoenix is America's sixth-largest city, but it lacks a national identity. I couldn't name a single rapper from PHX (no, DMX, who's been residing -- and frequently arrested -- in the area lately doesn't count) so I consulted local journalist and former Phoenix New Times music editor Jason Woodbury. He suggested Mexican-American rapper Marcus "MC Magic" Cardenas, known locally for solo albums like 2006’s Magic City, and as the leader of Nastyboy Klick, a Chicano rap crew that also included Magic's own son. "Magic is uniquely Arizona, Chicano flavor, Art Laboe lowrider oldies style," Woodbury says, offering the caveat: "He’s not put out uniformly great albums." Magic’s best-known track is probably "Down For Yours" featuring talkbox king Roger Troutman, which peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard rap chart in 1996.
Runner-up: Willy Northpole
Pittsburgh: Wiz Khalifa
Most "Pittsburgh" song: "Black and Yellow"
After honing his stoner persona on mixtapes like Kush & Orange Juice, Wiz Khalifa gave Pittsburgh its first rap anthem, 2010's "Black and Yellow," a reference to the colors worn by the city’s three professional sports teams. A handful of Steel City rappers have gained notice since then, but just about all seem to have some affiliation to Wiz, one of few local acts to achieve pop success in recent years (only Christina Aguilera comes to mind). Wiz’s output since those early mixtapes has been hit or miss, but it's safe to say he'll be the "prince" of Pittsburgh for a long time to come.
San Francisco: Andre Nickatina
Most "San Francisco" aong: "Smoke Dope and Rap"
San Francisco overshadows Oakland in almost every measurable arena -- except rap. If you're not from the Bay, you might have a tough time naming an MC from San Fran; most local rap icons, if not from Oakland proper, hail from some part of the East Bay. Not that there aren't any good ones from the Golden City. Raised in the Fillmore, SF's now-gentrifying black core, Andre Nickatina has been a cult figure locally since the '90s, when he was known as Dre Dog, releasing decidedly non-commercial fare like "Smoke Dope and Rap" from ‘93’s The New Jim Jones.
Seattle: Ishmael Butler
Most "Seattle" song: "Motion Sickness"
Sir Mix-a-Lot and Macklemore, those guys you know from novelty hits "Baby Got Back" and "Thrift Shop," respectively, both hail from Seattle. For a local product who;s made a more long-term, if somewhat less recognizable, impression on rap, there's Ishmael "Ish" Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro. While living in New York during the early '90s, Butler formed Digable Planets, the jazz-inspired Brooklyn trio best known for 1993’s "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." A decade and a half later, he re-emerged in his hometown with Shabazz Palaces, a duo with Seattle-raised, Zimbabwean musician Tendai "Baba" Maraire. The group has recorded three albums of challenging, decidedly non-commercial rap for Sub Pop, the indie-rock label best known for Nirvana. They cut hip-hop tracks that are about as "Seattle" as it gets.
St. Louis: Nelly
Most "St. Louis" song: "Country Grammar"
No one would ever cite Nelly as an elite lyricist. He's more hookmeister than MC, packaging rhymes in a catchy, sing-song flow. But you;ve got to give him credit for defining his city’s "Midwest Swing" sound along with his St. Lunatics crew. With "Country Grammar," the lead single from his 2000 debut of the same name, he instantly gave the local rap scene a national profile and a distinct identity that was equal parts Southern and Midwestern, in keeping with the city’s history as a regional crossroads. Nelly would also open the door for similarly styled local artists like Chingy, J-Kwon, and the St. Lunatics' own Murphy Lee.
Virginia Beach: Missy Elliott
Most "Virginia Beach" song: "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)"
As the largest city in Virginia’s sprawling Hampton Roads metroplex (which also includes Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Chesapeake, and Newport News), Virginia Beach became a hotbed for hip-hop and R&B talent in the '90s, especially behind the scenes. There, Portsmouth-born Melissa "Missy" Elliott and Timothy "DJ Timmy Tim" Mosley -- soon to be known as Timbaland -- connected, writing and producing music for Elliott's girl group, Sista, and, later, Aaliyah. Later in the decade, Missy stepped out as a rapper with Supa Dupa Fly, instantly attaining superstar status with her futuristic arrangements, rap/R&B fusion, and bold, cartoon-inspired visuals. Health issues have staggered her productivity in recent years, but her latest single, "WTF," a collaboration with fellow Virginia Beach product Pharrell, will remind you just how much today's rap queen Nicki Minaj owes to Miss E.
Washington, DC: Wale
Most "DC" song: "Pretty Girls"
Like nearby Baltimore, DC's never been a rap town. Go-go music, the performance-oriented, percussion-based music style pioneered here by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, has been the Chocolate City’s dominant sound since the '70s. It's only in the last few years that the city's rap scene emerged into the public eye. That’s largely due to Wale, who, before he was plucked by Rick Ross to join Maybach Music Group, cemented his rep locally by rapping over go-go beats on songs like 2006’s "Dig Dug" and (later, on his major-label debut, Ambition), "Pretty Girls."
Jesse Serwer is a freelance journalist who’s obsessed over rap since he heard the first Fat Boys tape on the bus to kindergarten. Follow him: @jesseserwer.